Hills Snyder: Son of Samson

Cactus Bar Space

Wendy Weil Atwell

Hills Snyder, Son of Samson, Installation view, 2003

Son of Samson, Hills Snyder’s recent exhibition at Cactus Bra Space, consisted of an installation and performance. Additionally, the artist’s The Book of Sam documents this ongoing project and contains a press release, performance script, interviews and other relevant materials. The night of his performance, Snyder sat on a wooden stool to receive a ritualistic haircut with artist Nate Cassie in the role of “The Barber.” The mixture of a hauntingly nostalgic piano piece by Schubert, a childlike rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and cicadas played in the background.

“Time for some change, huh?” the Barber asked Snyder. “I reckon,” he replied. “So what’ll it be?” asked the Barber. “I don’t know…maybe something between just ‘got out’ of jail and ‘world-class soccer player’…but I don’t have much time. I have to be at a chance meeting in three minutes.” Snyder’s reply is inspired by a line taken from the film Man on the Train. Cassie, donning a barber’s black cape with the title “Head Curator” printed on the back in Biblical, Old English letters, proceeded to cut Snyder’s hair according to his request. As he received his cut, Snyder faced an antique mirror which hung on a wall with the words, “Hail Mute Beast,” in an arc over it. Clippings of Snyder’s hair remained where they fell as part of a piece entitled Fuzzy Logic, the barber’s stool now crowned with a paperback copy of Don Quixote. The stool was a replica of a stool on Quixote ‘s cover, which also holds a book. The Book of Sam points out this continuity as linked with Don Quixote’s meta-fictive nature: it is a “story within a story within a story within a story again.”

Hills Snyder, Chance Meeting, 2003
Sheetrock dust and miniatures: piano, bench, sweing machine, flags and carpet
4 x 12 x 9 inches

Cactus Bra’s room was disquieted by an ominous pink light, which glowed over the eight different pieces stationed around it. They included Ridge and Furrow, flags re-sewn into red and white stripes and hung vertically; Goodbye Dolly, a cross covered in sheepskin and hung in the center of a black wall; and Big Bowtie, a scripted line cut into a sheetrock wall (forming the shape of the work’s title) which read “Paranoia/Ecstasy.” Snyder also used miniature furniture and objects in Chance Meeting, Princess and P, and Goofy’s Just Pluto with Clothes. Princess and P contained a stack of forty paperback versions of Being There by Jerzy Kosinski, topped by the paperback version of Mary by Vladimir Nabokov. The stack was set in the corner of a square painted in the corner of the room. One corner of the square, remained unpainted and contained an open, miniature paint can placed on a miniature piece of newsprint. Bark of the Tree, in the opposite corner of the room, was a doorway transformed to look like an entrance of a yard. Green light glowed over a black, stuffed toy Labrador, which sat behind a chain-link gate.

Hills Snyder, Bark of The Tree, 2003
Stuffed toy labrador, chain link gate and sod
41 1/2 x 29 x 36 inches

?But what of Snyder’s performative call for “change” on opening night? What change? Change from what? It is a suggestion as simple as the pun of two dimes on the floor beneath the mirror and something as complex as Snyder’s approach to his art? In the installation there is no sign of Snyder’s former Plexiglas icons for which he has become so successful and well-known. The installation/performance offers a difficult new terrain of art, spurning any formulaic approaches that the viewer may have formed in relation to his prior work; except that in this show and in his past shows, the environment and the placement is highly integral to the work—like an ecosystem. In Tea for One (2000) at Three Walls Gallery, Snyder’s Plexiglas icons were separate entities that could exist unto themselves, yet they became richer and more meaningful when considered in relationship with their surroundings. Also, Snyder’s approach continues to favor the element of chance. Son of Samson complicates his focus on interrelationships and chance, offering more objects combined in a systemic approach in place of clean-cut, gestaltlike Plexiglas images (is this because they could tempt the viewer to get “stuck” on one object alone?). The result, in the densely packed Son of Samson, is a kind of domino effect in which one reference may lead to another, yet another, ad infinitum. In this sense, it is the community of references that becomes important. Snyder’s art creates tiny sparks around the room which, depending on each viewer’s personal experience, may or may not ignite. Yet, once ignited, the flame spreads.

Once a viewer’s associations have been sparked, the work may live on in the mind. This is the importance of installation work—even after it is long disassembled, the references have a continued life. Certainly it is the root of conceptual art—once it/its meaning enters the discourse, its role continues beyond the actual occurrence of the work. Snyder’s work has jumped realms, and while it is not altogether removed from the object or material realm, his use of form has changed so that it even more strongly evokes the conceptual realm, entering a life beyond form or material objectivity.

Hills Snyder, Princess and P, 2003
Paperback books, red floor paint, birch and miniatures: paint can, brush, stir stick and newspaper
17 1/4 x 21 x 20 inches

The associations sparked by Son of Samson have the thrill of a treasure hunt and the mystery of deep-sea fishing. I may cast about and come up with many colorful catches, yet I cannot cast a net around its entirety and haul it in for examination. The art’s many layers only seem to multiply once the process of discovery begins. Snyder has devised art that may not be contained or totally understood by the viewer. It requires the use of “fuzzy logic”; the central concern of Snyder’s installation and performance at Cactus Bra is paradox. Many references point to the paradoxical, including French director Patrice Leconte’s 2002 film Man on the Train, the novel Don Quixote, the topic of paranoid schizophrenia, the Biblical legend of Samson and Delilah and the 1970s serial killer David Berkowitz…a.k.a. “Son of Sam.” (The toy dog in Bark of the Tree references the dog that Berkowitz thought was commanding him to commit murder.)

Upon further examination of Son of Samson, I believe the paradox extends beyond the content of the art work and its multitudinous references, reaching deep into the structure of the work itself and the process of the artist making the work. Each piece in the installation has been carefully calibrated in relation to the performance so that connections between the various pieces bounce between one another like reflections in a hall of mirrors. Snyder reveals that the topic of “the double” or the paradox, as well as “paranoia/ecstasy,” have preoccupied him for three decades. The Book of Sam guides the viewer to many of the art’s references. What would the experience of the show be without it? Would the installation appear to be a bizarre conglomeration of seemingly disconnected objects? Yes. Snyder constructs his art so that the more involved the viewer is, the more rewards his work offers.

Remaining open to the element of chance, Snyder’s installation suggests the importance of communing around an artwork, evident as people gathered to ponder the meaning of the night’s performance as well as the work itself. To pose questions and spark a discussion is crucial, as each of our experiences in relation to the work is limited and may differ from the artist’s. In this sense, the associative takes precedence over the analytical. The subconscious is an expansive source; consciousness is finite. While analysis may diminish the work, treating it as a finite object, the associative only expands its meaning and, in turn, the viewer’s experience of the work.

An expanded version of Son of Samson will be installed and performed at Angstrom Gallery in Dallas next October (after Snyder’s hair has grown out).

Hills Snyder, Goofy’s Just Pluto with Clothes, 2003
Vinyl lettering, two dimes and miniatures: Victorian love seat, dog bed and carpet
5 1/2 x 12 x 9 inches

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